17 skippers, 17 boats, alone at sea for nine months. Theo Stocker was on the startline as the yachts set off to take on the world
Taking on the world. The boats, the skippers and the atmosphere from the start line of the Golden Globe Race
Calm seas and a light breeze belied the extraordinary challenge ahead. As 17 small yachts sailed towards the horizon, 30,000 miles of sailing lay ahead of them. In boats under 36ft and at little more than 6 knots, this will mean close to nine months of isolation and endurance.
The original Golden Globe Race was a gauntlet thrown down by The Sunday Times, not long after Sir Francis Chichester completed his solo circumnavigation, with one stop in Australia.
In 1968, Sir Robin Knox-johnston won the Golden Globe Race and became the first person ever to sail non-stop solo around the world, at a time when astronauts had already made it into space.
The Golden Globe Race 2018, which has shunned modern technology in favour of traditional seamanship and modest cruising boats, will require no less remarkable skill, determination and luck to complete than the first race 50 years ago.
Just making it to the start line has, for many of the skippers, been an exhausting feat in itself. Abhilash Tomy, the Indian naval officer who has built Thuriya, a replica of Suhaili (in India, with Indian timber, as Sir Robin did), couldn’t wait for the start and a chance to rest. ‘My race finishes at the start line. I’m really tired!’ he told a press conference. ‘I am going to take the north Atlantic as a holiday and to get used to the boat. I’ll get to the Equator then I might think about racing.’
Recalling his own voyage, Sir Robin Knoxjohnston was reassuring, ‘It’ll be a great relief to see them all go. 80 per cent of the event is done before the start – the rest is just sailing.’
His advice for the skippers was simple, ‘Once you’ve crossed the startline, just settle down into it. Secondly, look after the boat. Finally, if you’re thinking about quitting, take a night to sleep on it before making a decision.’ In a race of attrition, keeping oneself functioning must come very high up the list of priorities.
While the race has stayed true to the original event in as many ways as possible – circumnavigating with just a sextant and a few cassette tapes is certainly a challenge – but it would be unconscionable to shun modern safety aids entirely. This includes AIS transmitters, radar reflectors, SOLAS liferafts, emergency GPS units and satphones. The sailors are able to send 140-character messages to race control daily, but cannot receive anything in return. They will also make weekly satellite calls to race control, but cannot make calls to anyone else.
This, along with the move to France, and rules that would have prohibited many of the boats from the 1968 event from taking part, has led some to question whether the Golden Globe Race isn’t now a different event entirely.
Founder and organiser Don Macintyre, was adamant, ‘This event celebrates Sir Robin’s circumnavigation 50 years ago, but we never said it would be exactly the same. We want to keep the event cost as low as possible, but we are never going to compromise on safety.’
Conceived as an event to be sailed in modest cruising boats, British sailor Ertan Beskardes wanted his Rustler 36 to remain as authentic as possible.
‘This is one of the most honest boats in the fleet,’ he said. ‘I still have a shower and a toilet that functions. Everything has remained the same as a cruising boat. The only change was adding the watertight bulkhead for the race rules, which had to be glassed in, but it is reversible.’
Australian Mark Sinclair has similarly done as little to change his Lello 34 as possible.
‘Everything is original, though we’ve strengthened the hull where needed. My Aries has been round the world one and a half times already, so we sent it for a service, but why buy something new when something old will do?’
Taking a more competitive approach, Frenchman and professional offshore racer Philippe Péché has stripped his Rustler 36 of weight and complexity.
‘It was important to me to keep the boat as simple as possible because it’s a long race. Wear and tear will be big, and simple means ensuring less wear. It’s more physical as I have to move around, but I am fit enough to do it.’ French solo sailing veteran Jean-luc van den Heede even went as far as chopping 1.5m off his mast.
‘Sailing in Biscay over the winter, I discovered that I had to put a reef in very early and most of the time the top of the mast was just extra weight. Unfortunately, I still have furling sails because I am too old. They keep it easy, but add a lot of weight.’
Isolation is one of the biggest challenges of the event and saying goodbye was hard
Tapio Lehtinen, a Whitbread veteran from Finland, has even rebuilt his 1965 Gaia 36, a forerunner of the Swan 36, from the foam-sandwich hull up.
‘I didn’t want the hull to delaminate during the pounding she’ll get. She now has full ring frames throughout, as well as longitudinal stringers and three watertight bulkheads in both the bow and stern to make her as torsionally stiff as possible. The extra weight has turned her into a submarine though.’ Similarly, his rig has been designed to withstand a certain number of pitchpolls, and double that number of rolls. He wouldn’t say how many. He even has a companionway capsule from an offshore powerboat. ‘Inside I have a seatbelt, and a footbar to steer the boat, without going into the cockpit.’
There will, however, be a few luxuries on board most boats. Péché is taking enough wine for two glasses a week, while van den Heede has a more extensive wine cellar from across France, and Gregor Mcguckin, from Ireland, is taking a keg of Irish whiskey on his Biscay 36 ketch. Lehtinen was looking forward to his five-volume biography of Sibelius, ‘but I’m still debating it as the boat is already sinking with the weight’. Mark Sinclair joked that he would be taking crew, ‘My uncle Rod passed away recently, but he’s onboard here with me, in a little container, wrapped in an ensign. So I’m not alone!’
Isolation is clearly one of the biggest challenges of the event, and saying goodbye was hard. The skippers have grown close in the months leading up to the start. They all went round to say goodbye to the others, and Lehtinen gave a few of them a playful kick up the backside to send them on their way, before asking Knox-johnston to do the same for him. Jean-luc van den Heede’s wife joked that she would now have eight months holiday, while the young daughter of Antoine Cousot, just old enough to understand what was happening, was inconsolable.
For Beskardes, the support of his family was critical. His wife, Arzu, explained, ‘I knew this was going to come when I married him, it was just a
matter of when. I was ready from 24 years ago.
I am happy he is doing it,’ she said.
For Goodall, leaving family behind appeared hard, but departure was a welcome relief from the attention she and the other skippers have received.
At 0945, a RIB came and pulled Antoine Cousot’s bright green bows off the pontoon and sent him on his way to the sound Breton bagpipes. A boat left every five minutes after that, until the pontoons were empty save for the yellow yacht of Italian sailor Franscesco Cappelletti, still desperately scrabbling to be ready to sail, in an echo of Alex Carozzo’s rush for the start in 1968. (He missed the deadline so is out of the event, but will still sail the route).
With ties to the shore cut, the skippers solo at last. Thousands of spectators lined the breakwaters out of Les Sables-d’olonne, waving the skippers off with flags and banners. One sign from the Irish contingent read, ‘You’re a good lad, Gregor’.
Clear of the harbour, the skippers were met with a confusion of boats. Spectators, families and media in motorboats, yachts and small ferries manoeuvred for a closer view, while giant trimarans, local Olonnoise fishing boats, the French Navy’s training ship, the Belle Poule, and legends of solo sailing, Gypsy Moth IV, Joshua and Suhaili all joined the melee. Helicopters roared overhead. Somewhere among them all were the 17 boats of the Golden Globe Race, orange-topped mainsails slatting in the turbulent water.
Australian competitors Mark Sinclair and Kevin Fairbrother sailed past each other, asking, ‘Where is the start line? Which way do we go?’ chuckling that this wouldn’t be the last time they asked that question during the race.
There was relief, however, that the conditions were benign. From her cockpit, Goodall told the press boat, ‘I’m just glad it’s not a gale.’ Beskardes munched on a fresh croissant as he waited for the start, ‘a last taste of France’. Mark Slats, the huge Dutchman, feigned disappointment that there was enough wind to make his giant oars redundant. The weather would give the skippers the rest they needed.
Suddenly, the rapport of a canon rang out across the water, fired by Sir Robin Knox-johnston from Suhaili. Fifteen minutes to the start. As the competitors congregated near what they hoped was the start, a Coastguard vessel chased spectator boats
Amidst the melee were 17 orange-topped mainsails, slatting in the turbulent water
clear of the course.
This was it then. The start of what they had each been anticipating for years. Ahead lay a great unknown. Given that only one competitor finished in 1968, completing the voyage is by no means certain, even for the numerous professionals in the race. Beskardes was philosophical about his chances:
‘I haven’t raced before as I’ve worked for a living all my life,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eye. ‘In every league, there is top, middle and bottom tier. I am in the bottom tier. I will start and hopefully I will finish. Once I’m past Gibraltar it’s all new cruising ground for me.’
Even van den Heede, 72, took a modest view. ‘I was too young the first time and I am too old this time, but I am doing it anyway. It’s a race, so I’ll try to be as fast as possible, but the first goal is simply to arrive.’ Seen by many as the favourite for the race, Philippe Péché was intent on winning, but equally pragmatic.
‘Maintaining a level of performance and tweaking the sails will keep my mind from wandering,’ he explained. ‘Psychologically it’s a huge challenge. Coming back to my loved ones is a big motivation, and winning the event is the other.’ But, he quickly admitted, ‘it’s a sail boat race and I’ve done enough of them to know that anything can happen.’
It’s not just the skippers that have to be up to it, the boats do too, pointed out Sebastian Picault, Péché’s team captain.
‘Firstly, the sails, their cut and set up will have a much bigger influence than anyone realises,’ he said. ‘Then there is water. They would be mad to leave the Doldrums without enough water to make it round. Anyone who thinks they will collect rainwater en route is dreaming – down south it’ll be coming horizontally.
Finally, having a totally watertight companionway hatch should have been a race stipulation. If they get rolled, it’ll keep them
There was relief to be one skipper, one boat, alone with the widening horizon
safe. Without it, even a small amount of water can do huge damage down below.’
Whatever their decisions, the skippers are all in cruising boats, a fact that thrilled Sir Robin Knoxjohnston. ‘This event is bringing sailing back to where it should be,’ he said. ‘It is enabling ordinary sailors in ordinary boats. Most of these boats cost less than your average caravan, and that’s very exciting.’
At least six competitors have already bought their boats for the next edition of the race in 2022. While some had hoped the event might return to the UK, this now seems unlikely. Don Macintyre explained, ‘The reception and hospitality in France has been fantastic. By June 2019 we will make a decision as to where the next event will be held, but let’s just say that I don’t forget my friends.’
Mark Sinclair believed the move to France has secured the event’s future, ‘Had it been running in the UK it probably would have gone through one edition, but being in France gives it the chance of going on in perpetuity. The French just get it.’
For now, the current skippers have to survive and complete this edition of the race.
As the canon smoke drifted away, the leading boats set their largest headsails, changing gear from the circus on land to order of sailing. Space gradually opened up around the yachts and moments of quiet stretched into minutes.
The helicopters returned to land, and one by one the spectator fleet peeled off. Boats with family on board lingered until the last moment before turning for the now-distant shoreline. We turned back too, leaving the skippers with concentration on their faces and a sense of peace, relief even, to be one skipper, one boat, alone at last with the widening horizon.
ABOVE: The skippers gather for one last photo call before the start BELOW: Finnish sailor Tapio Lehtinen gathers his family for a group hug, before finally stepping aboard
ABOVE: Abhilash Tomy sets sail in Thuriya BOTTOM:Sir Robin Knox-johnston (L) bids farewell to Norwegian sailor Are Wiig
ABOVE:Amid a gaggle of spectators, Gregor Mcguckin (L) and Mark Sinclair (R) cross the start line BELOW: Tapio Lehtinen and Ertan Beskardes enjoy perfect conditions
ABOVE: Are Wiig on his OE32 under full sail BELOW: Susie Goodall gets into her stride across the start line